Friday, May 19, 2006

Introduction: Beginning Section

Sexual terms are inherently fascinating. Sex is one of humanity’s most intense experiences and the ways of discussing it range from outright crudity through clinical detachment to a decorum sometimes marked by timidity and reticence.

Let me candid, though. This book will require some hard work.

This study addresses the character and historical development of the body of words used for homosexuality—-the homolexis or homolexicon—-in the five major Western European languages, English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Technically, the individual words are termed homolexemes. A number of valuable studies have been published for the five languages individually. Yet as far as I know, a broader, comparative approach has not been previously attempted. Given the limitations of my own knowledge it has not been feasible to treat the languages with uniform depth. The English tongue will remain the base.

Readers should not be surprised to find that some favorite term is lacking, for the coverage is illustrative rather than exhaustive. For example, one scholar has collected more than 150 different instances of expressions employing “queen” as the second element (drag queen, opera queen, etc.). Only a few of these will be noticed here. The purpose is to determine the principles governing the appearance, survival, and function of words. To achieve this goal a representative sample suffices.

Moreover, even dictionaries that attempt to be comprehensive must ultimately fail in the realm of sexual terminology, because the vocabulary continues to grow and change. That is particularly true for homosexuality. Equipped with various survival skills, gay people tend to be creative with language. This knack engenders a continuing stream of ad hoc expressions. A few of these survive; most do not. Moreover, because of long-standing prejudice and discrimination, the host society has generated a disconcertingly large body of terms of disparagement.

These words, the homolexemes, have invited at least four valid approaches.

1) In the this approach the scholar seeks to gather a copious repertoire, offering relevant citations. One may start with three major reference works, which offer much useful material. Two monumental slang dictionaries are exemplary. One is a classic of a hundred years ago, John Stephen Farmer and William Ernest Henley, Slang and Its Analogues: A Dictionary, Historical and Comparative, of the Heterodox Speech of All Classes of Society … (7 vols., London and Edinburgh, 1890-1907). Still in progress, J. E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (New York, 1994- ). For individual words one should consult the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, with the latest revisions. From these three works provide much useful data. We are not so lucky with the domain of the homolexis. Bruce Rodgers, The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon (San Francisco, 1972), offers more than 6,000 brief entries, many nonce items that never enjoyed any general currency. Paul Baker, Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang (London and New York, 2002), has a British emphasis. In two model studies, Claude Courouve combines citations with astute analysis. His monograph on French male terms was path-finding twenty years ago, and he has now (2006) privately published an enlarged edition with many more citations, entitled Dictionnaire historique de l’homosexualité masculine. This book is now the most comprehensive and reliable source for such terms in any language. Jody Skinner, Bezeichnungen für das Homosexuelle im Deutschen (2 vols., Essen,1999) offers an extensive roster emphasizing recent German usage. To be sure, there are a number of alphabetical lists of a popular sort, including Internet sites, which are subjective and incomplete. This is a game in which any number can play, with results of varying value.

2) One may view the words as monads or vectors distilling significant themes illustrating the history of ideas about same-sex love. This approach calls for selectivity. Giovanni Dall’Orto’s “Le Parole per dirlo” (originally published in the periodical Sodoma in 1986 and now available at focuses on eleven Italian words, but covers them thoroughly (now expanded in an Internet version). Where the first method is extensive, this one is intensive.

3) One may adopt the sociolinguistic approach, as seen in the work of the Lavender Linguists (LL) group. This method, to be discussed further below, tends to disregard individual lexical items in favor of an empirical study of interlocutory situations. LL pays attention to overtones and social contexts, instead of individual words. Thus the amount of gay content is variable and sometimes elusive.

4) Finally there is the method adopted in this book, which posits that words and word clusters tend to ramify through networks and linkages of various kinds. These are termed tropes. It must be conceded that in the aggregate these patterns form a very imperfect system—if that term can even be used. At best we encounter a series of “fuzzy sets.” Yet they are indeed sets, and not just an agglomeration of unrelated, atomic entities. There is no “gay language,” even in the somewhat limited sense of argots and cants. But words tend to consort together--almost promiscuously, one might say--generating other words. And sometimes the lexical entities migrate from one natural language to another. Hence the five-language feature.

To say it once more, the range of terms covered in this book is selective, not exhaustive. Pride of place goes to expressions that consort with others. The purpose of the three sections of this book is to supply a map or diagram, a framework for the insertion of additional material, if desired.

It is sometimes hard to distinguish fully between terms that have general currency and those that are the happy inspiration of a single person. The latter are called nonce terms. Most terms, though, do in fact start out with the invention of a single person. Then they spread to a small circle and, if their luck holds, to broader segments of society. This book favors terms with broader currency, but inevitably some nonce terms have been included.

Even a preliminary acquaintance with the words of the homolexicon reveals that many are terms of disparagement. For almost 2000 years Western society has sought to repress same-sex behavior. This history could not fail to exact a toll. Most of these words have had to travel down a long corridor of malice, oppression, and willful misunderstanding. Even apart from the theological and legal restraints, gay people are likely to be perceived, even now, as different. This perception recalls the way other “others” have been represented in our society, including women and ethnic minorities. Indeed, some terms combine misogyny with homophobia. Racism in not absent. And it is not surprising that some gay and lesbian people have internalized the disparaging attitudes connected with these words.

Why tell the story then? In part it a cautionary tale, and reminder of how far we have come. Broadly speaking, the history of human knowledge is one of progress from error and superstition to truth and enlightenment. Such hopeful elements are also found in these pages. But mainly we tell the story because it is there.

As noted above, this is not a study in gay sociolinguistics. Lavender Linguistics (LL) studies mainly the usage of gays and lesbians themselves. Terms and ways of thought generated by the host society are only of interest insofar as they enter into the realm of social interaction among gay men and lesbians themselves. Nuances of phrasing, intonation, and gesture are of major concern. Sometimes described as gayspeak, LL has a strong interest in the ephemera of popular culture (music, movies, television), neglecting longitudinal and cross-cultural aspects. One also notes the present-mindedness of LL—which is mainly restricted to current English-language, indeed American usage.


Since I published Homolexis: A Historical and Cultural Lexicon of Homosexuality in 1985, there has been a groundswell of interest in the field. Generally speaking, there has been a shift away from the lexical studies of same-sex terms in the direction of a study of applied social interaction. It seems that William Leap and others involved in the Lavender Linguistic trend believe that there is such a thing as a gay and lesbian language, sometimes known as “gayspeak.” Yet as Don Kulick has aptly observed in a critical review of the matter, this entity is a phantom (“Gay and Lesbian Language,” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 29, 243-85). Not only is there no generally accepted gay/lesbian language (for many do not recognize its supposed gay elements), the argument is circular—what gays speak is gay language and that ipso facto points to a gay person. No doubt there are continuities of intonation, phraseology, and conversational strategies that are frequently found among gay and lesbian persons. But as Kulick argues, they are probably no different that the devices of solidarity that inform the speech of, say, firefighters, real-estate agents, and (needless to say) college professors. In short to speak of a gay language is an exaggeration, for there is no such entity, only a set of usages, words, turns of phrase, and inflections preferred by significant sectors of the overall set of the gay/lesbian population.

Sexual language is but an enclave, or set of enclaves within the vast territory of natural languages. From these enclaves alone, it would never be possible to reconstruct the nature of the languages in which they reside. However, the language sets up parameters in which these paralanguages flourish. To put it another way, the host language is autonomous, the paralanguages dependent.

Recent trends aside, the need to study the vocabulary of same-sex behavior and desire abides. To define gay people the host society has deployed an extensive repertoire of words, many of them distinctly unflattering. Other terms have come forward from gay people themselves. There is no absolute separation between the two source streams. Sometimes, usually reluctantly, the host society has adopted terms preferred by homosexual persons themselves, such as (formerly) Greek love and gay itself. Conversely, gays have, for better or worse, taken over the disparaging terms that have been hurled at them. In the past this takeover has been accompanied by a certain complicity in the negativity resident in them. This acquiescence may be regarded as a form of internalized homophobia. Recently, as with queer, some gay theoreticians have maintained that these terms can be detoxified and reclaimed. The very act of doing so is daring and transgressional, reflecting the confidence and power of the proud gay and lesbian person—or so they hold. There are several views on this matter, and these will be discussed below under the category of detoxification

The study of terms developed to denote this major human group goes back at least as far as Magnus Hirschfeld’s magnum opus of 1914, Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes. In my 1985 monograph, I cited a number of relevant dictionaries and studies in several languages. There are now more of these, facilitating comparative linguistic study. Since many ideas about homosexuality arose outside the English-speaking world, and other countries still harbor differences in practice and conceptualization, it is important to perform this task in a non-ethnocentric manner. Indeed, ordinary gay and lesbian travelers note similarities and differences in the languages of the countries they visit. The curiosity fostered by such experiences is a valuable spur to knowledge.

While much has been accomplished, much remains to be done. For many, even today, sexual language is an unwelcome guest. Many would prefer that we ignore the street language of “cocks” and “boobs” and so forth. During Victorian times some stipulated that even so-called scientific terms, such as homosexual and algolagnia (erotic enjoyment of pain) be tabooed. The less we know about such subjects the better. Regrettable, this ostrich notion lingers in some quarters even today.


For reasons of space this work is not much concerned with etymologies as such. For sexual terms, however, it is often possible to trace the current usage to a recent sense that is well documented. For example, in eighteenth-century slang queer meant “financially dubious; counterfeit.” Hence the expression “queer as a three-dollar bill.”

One tendency should be noted, and that is the temptation experienced by gays and lesbians to embrace folk etymologies—urban legends in effect—to explain key terms. A good example is the claim, still in wide circulation, that the word faggot derives from a vicious medieval custom of using bound homosexuals as kindling in witch burnings. As Warren Johansson has shown this derivation is a mistake. The immediate predecessor of faggot is a disparaging term for a woman.

Some lesbian scholars have sought to derive dyke from Dike, the Greek goddess of justice, or from Queen Boudicca, who led a revolt against Roman rule in Britain. Neither is correct. The most likely derivation of the word dyke is from a style of fancy dress.

Some will regret the general absence of source citations. To the extent that these are known, they are cited in the works of Courouve, Dall’Orto, Skinner and others, as noted above. In other instances, the reader must simply take my word for it (so to speak). In my youth I heard the expression “meat for days” so often as to know from personal experience that it was not a rare or nonce expression.


Argot (or cant) is a body of words devised to serve as a confidential means of communication among a particular group. When uttered, these words are opaque to outsiders, but perfectly clear to the in-group. An example is the word gay, which for most Americans prior to the 1960s simply meant “joyous; carefree; fun-loving.” For homosexuals, for whom it had quite a different meaning gay could be used in mixed company without giving anything away. In addition to concealment, such words served to promote solidarity by identifying the speaker as a member of the group.

Clearly then, argot is created by those who have something to conceal. That means all sorts of marginal groups, including criminals, hoboes, certain tradespeople, and homosexuals. The locus classicus is eighteenth-century thieves’ cant in England. For example, two ruffians might be talking about “biting the ken.” Since “ken” means house, they are discussing a robbery. The following is an example from today’s gay-male world. A straight outsider might overhear one man say to another: “Is your partner well-endowed.” The outsider would probably think that they were discussing the financing of a joint business venture. In reality they were talking about penis size. These usages may be termed Janus-words, because they present one side to outsiders, another to those in the know. Recourse to such expressions forms part of a larger pattern of dissimulation, essential to all groups that have been marginalized.

Such phenomena occur among respectable groups as well. In fact they are generally characteristic of secret societies. That the Freemasons boast an extensive repertoire of distinctive gestures, known only to themselves, is generally recognized. They also make use of ordinary words in special ways. For example, a Brother may speak of “traveling to the East from the West”—or simply “traveling”—alluding to the Masonic idea of seeking light from the sun. Such utterances serve as screening and signaling devices. If the listener is not a member of the organization, there will be no response. If he is, he will probably pronounce other “special” words in confirmation of the fact. Outsiders who happen to be present will remain oblivious to the real nature of the conversation.

Argot of this type is the property of a particular group. By contrast, some argot develops into a vast empire, circulating among a wide range of marginal groups. The most striking example is Caló, a Spanish argot comprising thousands of words. Over the centuries some Caló expressions have seeped into the general language. Linguistic purists decry these intrusions, some even denying that the argot exists. Another example is the Gaunersprache of the German-language sphere. Originally the jargon of the criminal underclass, Gaunersprache has bequeathed a number of words to standard German. The original context of French argot, as seen for example in the jargon poems of François Villon, was of this type. Today that argot has to all intents and purposes merged with the standard language. By way of compensation, French has acquired an extensive new argot called Verlan. More restricted in range is Cockney rhyming slang, which has contributed a few expressions to our subject. (The special case of Polari will be discussed below.)

As we have seen, secrecy is hard to maintain, and eventually much argot migrates into everyday speech. Then it becomes slang, discounted by linguistic purists but generally understood, even by those who decline to use it. In addition to the influx from argot, there is much slang that arises simply as slang. Examples are the mid-fifties terms platter (a phonograph record) and headshrinker (a psychiatrist).

The headshrinker example brings us to another topic. A good deal of the slang that we treat in this book has been devised for purposes of disparagement. These items reflect a pervasive homophobia. This prejudice derives from the marginalization of same-sex conduct that, supported by the instruments of law and medicine, has blighted Western society for almost two millennia. At last we gradually shedding this incubus, but it will be found to have left a permanent impress on language. One must hope, and reasonably so, that the words of hostility will be defanged, as it were, their negativity now being merely harmless. Some believe that we have reached this stage with queer, but I am not so sure.

Linguists, then, regard argot and slang as aspects of language. They are not full-fledged languages themselves, but rather bodies of material embedded in the host language. When we employ expressions such as gayspeak and homolexis, we must bear in mind this dependent status within the infinitely vaster realm of language itself.

Some linguists write of registers, different levels of speech. Some have the capacity to switch between two registers with ease. This skill is called diglossia.

While the phenomenon of dissimulation through language is generally addressed in its oral manifestations, it may be noted that there are also high-culture analogues. During tsarist times in Russia writers of social commentary under strict censorship had recourse to a device called Aesopic language--a variety of linguistic tricks, allusions, and distortions comprehensible to an attuned reader but baffling to censors. An early example is the novel “We” (1920) by Evgeny Zamyatin. In this science-fiction fable set in the twenty-sixth century A.D., the author refers to the dictator as “the Benefactor.” Even so, his novel was banned. Later writers could refer to Stalin as the Benefactor—if they dared.

The general public relegates argot and slang to the lower registers of language. The higher registers of language have also made a major contribution. These terms derive from the sophisticated realms of theology (sodomy, against nature), medicine and psychiatry (inversion, latent homosexuality), and law (sodomy again). More recently sociologists and other social scientists have supplied some terms. Finally, the “respectable” vocabulary of Standard English (and the other tongues examined in this book) has recently been enlarged by gays themselves (homophobia and biphobia).

As a rule dictionaries of the homolexis do not combine the high registers with the low ones. Most in fact concentrate on argot and slang, excluding standard language. The boundary between high and low is not an absolute one, however. Many terms cross over, sometimes with changes. An eighteenth-century example is morphadite, a garbled rendering of hermaphrodite. More recent is homo, a slang clipping of homosexual, which is standard English. These are instances of “high” vocabulary migrating into the popular sphere. The opposite process has occurred with gay meaning “homosexual.” Once merely slang, it is now widely accepted by journalists, civil-rights workers, and others.

Nor is possible strictly to separate words of disparagement (a disconcertingly large contingent) from those that are neutral or favorable. Some words, such as deviation, which were intended to be neutral have acquired a tinge of pejoration. Other terms, which were at one time derogatory, have been recycled by gays themselves.

This section concludes with a brief discussion of British Polari, which has attracted considerable attention in recent years. Consisting of some 500 words, it is a mixture of Lingua Franca, Italian, Romany, backslang, rhyming slang and thieves cant. In its original form, which probably goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century, it was used in fishmarkets, the theater, the merchant navy, and by circus people and other popular entertainers. Through the London theater there was an interchange with the gay subculture. The notion that it is a specifically gay phenomenon is due to its exploitation in a popular BBC radio show, “Round the Horne” that ran from 1964 to 1969. The two camp characters Julian and Sandy sprinkled their repartee with doses of Polari. As these characters were clearly gay the notion spread that it was a gay language. With changing social conditions, Polari began to die out. Its limited revival at the end of the twentieth century is more a curiosity than a linguistic phenomenon.


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